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Faced again by the prospect of dozens of public commenters, as has been the case for the past several weeks over public concerns about vaccine passports, Orange County supervisors on Tuesday abruptly canceled residents’ opportunity to speak about a proposal to further limit public comments at government meetings.
The move fueled deep anger among more than a hundred of those residents who stuck around for six hours, only to get 30 seconds to sound off to governing officials later Tuesday.
From those who waited to speak, there was talk of legal challenges to public comment rules, as well as ongoing chatter about recalling members of the Board of Supervisors.
About 120 people had signed up to speak on a Tuesday morning agenda item that would change several policies – including adding one that would let supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do limit the total speaking time for the public on specific agenda items.
Do has been openly frustrated about public comments in recent weeks from residents who criticize him and the rest of the board.
On Tuesday, county supervisors were also hearing a public presentation on the upcoming county budget – which they largely agreed to without making any major public adjustments. A final vote on that budget is scheduled for June 22.
Noting the number of people who wanted to speak about the policy change – 116 in person and two written comments to be read aloud – Do expressed doubt out loud on Tuesday that the residents’ voices would really matter.
“I don’t know if the public comments will necessarily guide how we think,” he said.
One of his colleagues echoed that.
“I’m not sure that all of the public comments are going – I know we have 116 today – I’m not sure all of them are going to be pertinent to this particular item and what we’re discussing right now,” said Supervisor Lisa Bartlett.
One supervisor, Don Wagner, suggested they hear from the public before voting to delay the item.
“Well rather than table it, we do have speakers. Maybe they will address – in some ways – this, and then we can take it up after we’re done [with] public comment. And then if we want to table it for a later date, we could do it,” said Wagner.
“We’ve got to go through [the speakers],” he added.
After having their own short discussion about the proposed policy changes, all board members, including Wagner, voted to delay the item before hearing from the public – effectively canceling public comment on it.
At Do and Bartlett’s suggestion, they delayed the item to July and Do did not call on residents to speak. When Do asked if any supervisors objected to adopting the motion, none did.
That triggered deep anger from the 100-plus residents who ultimately waited about six hours to speak at the very end of the meeting during general public comments.
“We have mothers out there with their children in this heat – you’re making them wait on purpose – because you want the public to go home,” said one speaker.
“You’re trying to silence our freedom of speech!”
The frustration at the board united speakers who tend to vehemently disagree about things like masking and vaccines.
“For a change, I’m actually going to agree with the person in front of me…It really does feel like you don’t want us in here speaking,” said another speaker.
“We have to take our whole work day to sit outside” in order to be heard, she added, calling it “totally not democratic.”
Others said the board’s actions showed contempt for the people they were elected to represent – something the supervisors did not respond to.
“When you allow us to sort of wilt in the sun out there, your actions really show the disgust for your constituents,” said one speaker.
“You serve the people, but your actions only conclude that you want us to shut up. But we’re not. we’re not going away.”
The supervisors’ actions go against the entire notion of the state’s transparency law known as the Ralph M. Brown Act, said Kelly Aviles, a leading attorney on government transparency issues in California.
“Before they take action, they’re required to let anyone speak on that item. So the fact that they [delayd] this item is still an action and they still should have allowed public comment on that question,” said Aviles, who is general counsel of the transparency group Californians Aware and represents Voice of OC in public records cases.
“To have a discussion about it before [and] then deciding not to allow the public to speak on it, is certainly problematic,” she added.
“While [officials] can institute reasonable restrictions on public comment, the restrictions are supposed to be to advance the rights of the public, not to limit them. So for example, if there’s hundreds of speakers, they can limit the amount of time each speaker has, but to hear more viewpoints,” she continued.
“I really suggest that if the board does not like hearing public comment, they might want to find a different line of work.”
It’s not the first time Do has faced pushback for how he’s handled the public’s right to engage their government.
Earlier in his tenure as a supervisor, Do tried to restrict the public from making comments he found offensive at Board of Supervisors meetings.
“Week in, week out, every time we have a meeting, it seems like the berating is getting more intense,” Do said back in 2015 well before the pandemic.
“I know freedom of speech is something that’s very difficult to curtail or to define,” Do said. “But there has to be, I think, something that we need to put in place, because I’m just getting fed up with the kind of comments that I hear nowadays.”
That prompted immediate pushback from one of his colleagues, who pointed to a training on First Amendment protections for the public when addressing their elected representatives.
Earlier this year, Do faced criticism for complaining that reporters were asking too many questions and seeking too many records about more than $200 million in coronavirus contracts the county secretly approved during the pandemic under a closed-door policy Do had defended.
As for Tuesday’s meeting, David Snyder, an attorney and executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, also concluded that the right policy decision would have been to let people speak at the time the item was being discussed.
“To the extent [the supervisors] were trying to allay public concerns that they’re trying to limit public discussion, their action today kind of showed their hand. That does seem to be the point,” Snyder said.
“Especially given the issue under discussion was the public’s ability to directly talk to their supervisors…Their limitation of public comment here expresses some level of contempt of the whole process of allowing for public comment.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.